Freedom and Institutions

The who study the question of religious freedom often wonder why it should benefit and protect not only individual believers, but also religious institutions. Application of religious freedom to institutions such as the Catholic Church―institutions which, needless to say, are not often themselves models of internal liberalism, equality, or democracy―generates a good deal of criticism. Among other things, the critics point out that religious institutions seem unique in benefiting from a right which, like other rights, normally attaches to individuals. Indeed, many people―and particularly the non-religious, the agnostics and the atheists―do not exercise their beliefs through institutions. They only claim religious freedom (which, it is generally agreed, includes the freedom not to hold any religious belief) for themselves, not for any institutions. Why should believers be different?

But this story from the BBC suggests that they might not be different. It tells of an “atheist church” gathering in London, singing, sermons, and all. As the BBC reports,

The audience – overwhelmingly young, white and middle class – appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith.

Now I, for one, find it somewhat perplexing. As Leo Tolstoy supposedly said when invited to join a temperance society, “there’s no need to get together in order not to drink. If you get together, you might as well raise a glass to the occasion.” But never mind. Many people strongly prefer to live their beliefs through institutions―whatever these beliefs are, even if they are non-beliefs. Institutions are an inextricable part of the belief. Attack the institution, and you risk destroying the belief. Claims that we can respect religious freedom without making room for religious institutions―or, it would seem, that we could respect the freedom of non-believers without making room for institutions of irreligion, whatever shape they might take in the years to come―are at best misguided, and hypocritical at worst.

Besides, it is not really true that religious belief is unique among rights in being bound up with institutions. Just as freedom of religion has its churches, freedom of expression has its press (sometimes expressly acknowledged in constitutional texts, as in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution), and, as Yale’s Dean Robert Post argues, its universities (as I explain here). So too the individual right to an impartial trial is connected with institutional protections for courts. And there are probably other examples too. Once you start thinking about it, religious freedom is neither as exceptional nor as exceptionable as some would have us think.

But institutions, however indispensable for freedom, can also stifle it. Universities, according to Dean Post, must be free to penalize professors and students who do not play by the generally accepted rules of the academic game; churches can impose penance and excommunicate their heretics. This is fine―this is part of these institutions’ freedom, which in turn is an inextricable part of how individuals exercise their own freedom―so long as there are alternatives. So long as an excommunicated heretic is free to found his own church, and to criticize the one that rejected him; so long as the mad scientist is free to pursue and publish his work outside the official ivory tower, there is no justification for interfering with the institutions which, internally, rely on authority more than on freedom. But there is a standing danger of such institutions growing so powerful as to capture the state and rely on its coercive machinery to forbid the expression of views disagreeable to them. That danger―the danger of the marketplace of ideas being ruled by state-backed monopolies―is what we must guard against.

The Idea of the Marketplace

Apologies for the lack of blogging for the past week. We had this minor disturbance of a hurricane, and then I went to a conference in Chicago to present my paper on federalism and judicial review.

My topic today is the highlight of that conference, a keynote address by Robert Post, Dean of the Yale Law School. Dean Post spoke about academic freedom, and how (American) courts struggle to understand it and integrate in the the First Amendment jurisprudence. Dean Post as expressed much the same ideas in a brief essay, “Discipline and Freedom in the Academy”, (2012) 65 Ark. L. Rev. 203 (which will, presumably, be available on the Review’s website in some not too distant future), and in a book he published this year (which I haven’t yet looked at). There is a lot of food for thought there, but I would like to focus on one specific claim.

One source of difficulty that courts have with figuring out the true meaning of academic freedom, says Dean Post, comes from the interference of the notion of the “marketplace of ideas.” It is a staple of the American free speech jurisprudence; and of course it sounds intuitively relevant to a discussion of universities, since they are in the ideas business. Unfortunately, this intuition is misguided, according to Dean Post. In the “Discipline and Freedom” paper, he writes that “[t]he marketplace of ideas is designed … to eliminate content discrimination. It is supposed to enshrine an equality in the field of ideas.” But there is, and can be, no such equality in academia, or in any setting that is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, especially of expertise, the institutionalized sort of knowledge universities are charged with producing. Academic disciplines recognize claims as true or false; arguments as valid or not. A university (as well as, say, a scientific journal) must be able to say that some ideas are brilliant and others rotten, and it does so all the time―when hiring a would-be professor, when granting him or her tenure, etc. Importing the notion of the marketplace of ideas into the academic setting contributes to the belief that academics are free to say whatever they please, but that’s nonsense. Once we understand that the purpose of universities is not to foster an equality of ideas but to generate expertise, we also understand, concludes Dean Post, that academic freedom is really the freedom of the academic profession to judge its members and their output by the standards of truth and validity it sets itself.

This is just a bare-bones sketch of one of the lines in Dean Post’s rich argument. I hope it is fair to him, even if it surely does not do it justice. Dean Post’s idea that universities, and the production of knowledge more generally, require discipline and judgment about what is true and valid, and what is not, seems obviously right to me. And I think Dean Post is right too that there is a danger in relying on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to develop a jurisprudence of academic freedom. But the danger is not exactly the one he sees. It is not that the marketplace of ideas is an inapt metaphor for describing the production of knowledge, but that it is a complex one, and easily misunderstood. Dean Post, I am afraid, it guilty of misunderstanding it in two ways.

First, a marketplace isn’t a place of equality. If the market is free, then everyone is equal in the sense of being legally able (which is of course not to say capable, or inclined) to enter it as a buyer or a seller. But not every seller will be successful, because every seller competes against other sellers of the same or similar products. Some products fare well; others do not. If the market is free, it is the preferences of the buyers, rather than the decisions of the government, that determine who succeeds and who fails. The marketplace of ideas is no different. It is not a place of equality. Some ideas are accepted, others rejected. When we rely on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas in discussing freedom of speech, we imply that this particular marketplace must remain a free one, in the sense that the preferences of the “buyers”―the readers, the listeners, etc.―determine which “products”―ideas―succeed, and which fail. The government cannot pick winners here, or erect barriers to entry, or even engage in much of the regulation that we consider acceptable in other markets.

Second, the market doesn’t consist just of individual sellers and buyers. In most markets, (most) sellers (and often buyers, but the demand side is less important here) are firms. And firms, as Ronald Coase pointed out in his brilliant paper on “The Nature of the Firm“, do not function internally according to the market principles of free competition at all. They are like islands of central planning, little command economies, even as their relationships with each other are structured according to market principles. The reason for this, Coase explains, is that on (relatively) small scales, command economies are actually more efficient than markets, because they avoid transaction costs. What about the marketplace of ideas then? Does it too have its “firms”―organizations which, internally, are not structured on free market principles? Arguably, Dean Post’s insight about universities not obeying marketplace of ideas principles is the equivalent of Coase’s insight about firms―universities are (one sort of) firms in the marketplace of ideas. (Others probably include the institutional press, and perhaps other producers of ideas). Internally, as Dean Post points out, universities or scientific journals are not marketplaces of ideas. But externally, they are producers on the great marketplace of ideas of our society. When, for example, I submit a paper to an academic journal, the journal evaluates it according non-marketplace criteria of truth and validity. But once it decides to publish it, it arrives on a market place of ideas, where it might have to compete against other papers in the same area, which have also passed the tests of truth and validity, and where its success or failure will be measured not by any institutional assessment, but by the interest of the readers and their willingness or not to accept my claims.

Now I’m not yet sure what, if anything, the takeaway from this is. I think that Dean Post’s key insight about the importance of institutional practices of assessment of truth and validity of scientific claims and arguments holds true whether we describe this assessment as taking place outside the marketplace of ideas altogether or within special structures, not organized on marketplace of ideas principles, which are nonetheless themselves part of the marketplace of ideas. My thinking here is still a prototype―I want to show it off, but am not yet ready to put it on the market.